Children bingeing on their phones, TVs, and laptops isn’t necessarily bad for their health, with parents wrongly focusing on “screen time” over screen context.
That’s according to Sue Fletcher-Watson, a developmental psychologist at the University of Edinburgh.
Fletcher-Watson has criticised screen time as an umbrella term which puts the focus on how much children use devices, but not what they’re doing.
The Guardian recently published a letter signed by child development and education experts linking a “screen-based lifetime” with the “decline in outdoor play” and spiralling rates of child obesity.
The letter’s signatories include Susan Greenfield, who has been criticised by fellow scientists for claiming a link between autism and technology use.
But Fletcher-Watson says there’s little evidence to connect these factors, and that the concept of screen time is flawed. Her takedown of the letter drew praise from her peers, and she was one of 50 signatories to a second letter to the Guardian calling for better evidence.
“Ask someone what screen time was in the 80s, and they would probably think about watching TV,” she told Business Insider. “But screen time now is interactive time — those fine motor movements of your fingers are developmentally important.
“What children are doing now with screen time is profoundly different.”
She notes that screen time comprises everything from watching TV passively to looking up information on Wikipedia, and most of these activities are not inherently bad.
“If a child is alone in their room, looking at stuff online, the assumption is they might be looking at porn or being cyber-bullied,” said Fletcher-Watson. “Actually, you might be having a nice chat with a friend or looking up something for your homework.”
Her views are supported by a report last year from the London School of Economics examining emerging research into the area. The paper argues that parents are wrongly focusing on screen time, and should instead look at how screens block or facilitate relationships.
Fletcher-Watson also points to technology-driven educational tools that involve screens and real-world objects, such as Osmo, which uses an iPad’s camera to interact with toys.
According to Fletcher-Watson, there’s little reliable evidence showing a causal link between developmental issues and screen time.
One oft-cited study published in 2014 claimed to demonstrate that children who spent five days without their devices showed better interpersonal skills.
But Fletcher-Watson noted flaws with the study — like the fact scientists testing the children knew which ones had spent five days without their devices, and which ones hadn’t.
“You can have researchers introducing bias within their own studies, looking to find a pattern they believe is there,” she said.
The Guardian’s letter called for national guidelines on screen time. Fletcher-Watson isn’t opposed to better guidance, but thinks it should take a positive tone.
“I would favour some positive recommendations, more like the five-a-day advice,” she said. “If the government makes recommendations, it should be to help children to have some time outside, some time doing sport and some time when they’re alone and quiet during the week.”
But she added: “The screen time debate will blow over. In five years, it will be some new scary word, because the term screen time won’t work any more.”